Sold - to the man from Britanny...

Mayfair fine-art auction house is latest British `trophy asset' to be snapped up by a foreign investor
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FRANCE is, famously, a capitalist country without capitalists. But there are exceptions and the exceptions tend to be very capitalist indeed.

Francois Pinault, 61, the diminutive Breton who has just bought Christie's, started out with his father's small, rural logging business 35 years ago. He now controls a global business empire worth an estimated pounds 1.5bn, stretching from the ski slopes of Vail, Colorado, to the Chateau Latour vineyards in the Medoc, to the FNAC record, books and electrical stores, to the Prisunic and Printemps department stores.

In the classic French fashion, the holdings are arranged in a "cascade", or series of loosely interlocking boxes, with the Artemis holding company at the centre.

In one respect, Mr Pinault is a true exception to the French rule. Unlike other Gallic empire-builders such as Bernard Arnault of LVMH, he is not a scion of the politico-bureaucratic establishment in Paris. He never attended any of the elite educational establishments; he never even passed his baccalaureate. He started his career by lurking on the edges of the bankruptcy courts, picking up failing businesses cheap.

In another sense, Mr Pinault is a classic entrepreneur of the French type, a man who has made good by understanding how to operate within the ponderous complexities, vanities and favouritisms of the French state and political system.

In the late Eighties, he abruptly moved up several divisions to the national and then the international league. For 20 years he has been a close friend of President Jacques Chirac: a friendship which is said to have boosted his career in 1986-88 when Mr Chirac was prime minister and Mr Pinault made his first big industrial acquisitions, picking up struggling companies with state aid.

"Pinault knew at each stage all the details of what his competitors were offering," a senior civil servant told the French magazine Le Point. Allegations of this kind - nothing clearly illegal, but many things which have left a bad taste - have followed Mr Pinault. He was a great beneficiary of the lunatic expansions of the state-owned bank Credit Lyonnais in the late Eighties and early Nineties. When Credit Lyonnais, a great investor in US junk bonds, was forced to sell out in 1992, Pinault bought most of the bonds - with a soft loan from Credit Lyonnais.

Some of his US acquisitions have tripled and quadrupled in value since then; they did not cost him a centime. Similarly dubious circumstances surrounded his acquisition of the Au Printemps stores in 1991. He bought another chain, Conforama, for pounds 450m; sold it to Printemps for pounds 460m six months later and in lieu of cash took two-thirds of the Printemps shares, in effect buying two companies for the price of one.

At the same time friends describe Mr Pinault as cultured and, in his own way, a man of principle. From a chance meeting when they were both young, he has always vehemently detested another Breton, Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front. He gave a large amount of money to the philosopher and film-maker Bernard Henri-Levy for his work on behalf of Bosnia.

Why the interest in Christie's? Mr Pinault has built up a valuable collection of modern art; some see the acquisition as a hobby. Others point to the deregulation of the French auction market, which will give huge opportunities to international firms such as Christie's and Sotheby's.

It would appeal to Mr Pinault's sense of humour to own the blue-chip "British" firm invading the French market.